The hysterically funny Dina Martina is back at the Soho Theatre early next month for a show packed with ludicrous songs, horrifying dance and side-splitting video. Hailed “as graceful as a Coke machine moving about on a hand truck,” expect an evening of raucous entertainment you will never forget. Here we catch up with the lady herself ahead of her London visit.
How would you describe yourself to someone who hasn’t had the pleasure?
I’m an old-time hoofer with a ballpark figure, really. I’m a singer, dancer and a classically-trained gymnast, so it’s not uncommon to see me working on my dismount from time to time. I can still do the Chinese splits too, but I don’t recover from them as easily as I used to. These days I need four or five spotters to make a clean return. I’m also a part-time Sherpa, a full-time docent and a volunteer doula.
Can you tell us some history, your life as a child etc?
I was born in the Appalachian Mountains but I was breaded in Las Vegas. My mother and I moved to Las Vegas so she could pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a compulsive gambler. My father died in childbirth. My grandmother was what you might refer to as a handsome woman, with very broad shoulders and a prominent madame’s apple. She had a sailor’s complexion and looked like a clean-shaven Colonel Sanders. She made a modest living as an amateur wet nurse well into her 90s.
What were you like as a teenager?
I was a bit introverted until I met my best friend Doreen at Caesar’s Palace when I was a teen. My mother cocktailed during the graveyard shift at Caesar’s and she didn’t want to leave me home alone, so I would just stand outside the front door of the casino from 11pm to 7am and that’s where I met Doreen. We were the same age, so we just clicked. And I love that after all these years of friendship we’re still the same age, I just think that’s neat. She invited me over to her house and all I remember is her playing her disco records really, really loud and I remember seeing a lot of spiders in her house. Everywhere you went in Doreen’s house, there were spiders. Loud disco music and lots of spiders. It was like a spider disco. Then when we were in 11th grade we got into modelling. Doreen was tall and thin and really hadn’t yet ‘developed’ so she modelled for street lamps and coat racks, whereas I modelled mostly for the Braille fashion magazines.
Who has influenced you musically?
Oh gosh, well… Mrs Miller was probably one of my first musical influences, but then there’s Dora Hall too. Are you familiar with her? She was married to the CEO of the Solo Cup Company and she spent her whole life wanting to be a singer, but it never happened. Then, when she was in her 70s, her husband funded her records and he even bought her prime evening time slots for her to star in her own TV specials with guests like Frank Sinatra Jr, Donald O’Connor and Scatman Crothers. Look her up on YouTube for sure. But another huge influence for me was Jonathan and Darlene Edwards. They performed for decades and won many awards, but my absolute favourite was their version of Take the “A” Train. Pure gold.
How about comedy influences?
The comedic ones that come to mind immediately are Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers and Carol Burnett, but my earliest comedy influences were my mother and her girlfriends when they’d get together and drink.
Any other artistic influences?
I think art’s neat, except for some of it. Lately I’ve been very inspired by found objects on canvas laid over mixed media.
What was your first show like and what do you remember of those early shows?
My very first show consisted mostly of dead air. But then in the 90s, my shows relied so heavily on that Cirque du Soleil-style dancing and real intense… um… urban movement, I guess, for lack of a better term. You know, really bordering on deep tissue audience contact.
How have your shows evolved since then?
Well, after many years of soul searching and some litigation I learned the time-honoured tradition of just using lots of flamboyant hand gestures to make the audience think – without actually touching them – that there’s a lot more going on in the show than there actually is. Marionettes can really help with that, too.
We know that music forms a big part of your shows, can you tell us about the songs you perform?
It’s basically “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”. The original songs I perform are a mix of old and new originals with borrowed cover songs, but the “something blue” is really special: I always wear my own signature perfume onstage, which features notes of lavender and bleu cheese. It’s called Dina Martina Evening in Roquefort.
We live in interesting times, are current affairs reflected in your comedy?
Very little to almost not at all, because I like to give people a respite from the world’s horrors and subject them to my own personal horrors.
What do you make of Donald Trump?
In reality, I make absolutely nothing of him. In my dreams, however, I make fertiliser out of him.
You’re coming back to London, what does London and the UK mean to you?
London is very important to me as it was the first major city I ever travelled to outside of Las Vegas, even before ever going to New York. I came here for six weeks in 1986 and had the time of my life. I often think of that famous Samuel Johnson quote, “When a man is tired of London, ‘round the corner fudge is made.” So true.
Have you got to see any UK drag acts, if so which do you like?
Back in the early 90s I was lucky enough to see Bette Bourne in Sarasine in Seattle, and not long after that I saw Bette again when Bloolips brought Get Hur and Island of Lost Shoes to Seattle, with Regina Fong, Lavinia Co-op and Precious Pearl. And when I first travelled to London back in ‘86 I saw Leigh Bowery twice, which was a religious experience for me. And from the first time I performed at Soho Theatre in 2008, everyone told me I had to see David Hoyle and Jonny Woo, both of which totally blew my mind.
What can we expect in your shows at the Soho Theatre?
Do you have a message for Boyz readers?
Yes, but I put it in a bottle and threw it into the ocean. I’m so sorry but at the time I had no idea I’d be doing this interview.